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Wells St. Bridge reopens after reconstruction

Al Powell walks across newly reopened Wells Street Bridge Thursday morning. | Stefano Esposito~Sun-Times

Al Powell walks across the newly reopened Wells Street Bridge on Thursday morning. | Stefano Esposito~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:53PM

For the first time in months, everyone could cross the Wells Street bridge Thursday morning: L riders, drivers, pedestrians — everyone.

The bridge, which dates back to 1922, opened up early Thursday after a $41 million reconstruction project that began in March involved cutting away old sections of the bridge and the tricky insertion of a new bridge leaf.

More than 80 percent of the bridge ­— a 150-foot span in the middle — needed to be replaced. The 15-feet remaining on each bank of the Chicago River was deemed strong enough to merely be repaired.

The reconstructions at times rerouted CTA trains and closed off the bridge for pedestrians and drivers.

Al Powell, who lives on the Far South Side but works downtown, was one of the many pedestrians strolling across the newly renovated bridge Thursday. For Powell, the closure was more of an opportunity than an inconvenience.

“I’ve always admired the architecture downtown,” Powell said. “So, I get to notice some of the other businesses I wouldn’t see because I have to take a different route.”

Of the spiffed-up bridge, Powell said: “It looks nice. They’ve come a long way.”

Several people were so delighted at the bridge’s opening, they were giving it attributes it doesn’t possess.

“It looks a little bit wider,” said Sanja Milone, 49, a River North resident. “I love that it’s finally open. It helps with the morning traffic — that’s the most important thing.”

By about 7:20 a.m., the familiar commuting life had returned to the shiny double-decker bridge. As a train rumbled overhead, two pedestrians dashed across Wells Street against the light, with a Porsche — horn blaring — bearing down on them.

The bridge is one of 37 so-called “fixed trunion bascule’’ bridges that grace the Chicago River.

Chicago is home to more such bridges than anywhere in the world. The model has been so perfected here that it is often called the “Chicago bascule.’’

The bordeaux-colored bridges standing sentry along the Chicago River function like double-leaved drawbridges that open in the middle. They operate via a unique set of counterbalances, using the same principles as a teeter-totter.

However, the Wells Street Bridge is one of only two double-decker bascule bridges that carry CTA elevated trains on the top deck and pedestrian and car traffic on the bottom one. That double function makes the bridge unusually heavy.

After 91 years of pounding use, the bottom horizontal chord of the bridge had become so deteriorated that Chicago Department of Transportation officials said it was literally pocked with holes.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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